Friday, April 10, 2009

Perlan Project

In one particular round of Wikipedia surfing, I happened to discover something called the Perlan Project. Basically, it is an attempt to fly a sailplane - glider - with a pilot to 100,000 feet (18.94 miles; 30.48 km) by surfing air currents similar to surfing a wave in the ocean.

Comparably, the highest flight by a manned, non-rocket-powered aircraft (i.e, excluding rocket-powered spacecraft like the X-15 and SpaceShipOne) is 85,069 ft in sustained flight (higher at the peaks of some climbs, however, and it has been sugested that classified records are above 90,000 feet) for the SR-71 and about 97,000 feet for the unmanned Helios.

By using standing waves coming off mountains, pilots Einar Enevoldson and the late Steve Fossett managed to climb a glider to 50,671 feet in phase I of the project. The phase II flight to 90,000 feet is scheduled for August or September 2011 at El Calafate, Argentina, which has the polar location - with the southern jet stream - and mountain-created air waves needed for the record flight. The phase III flight to 100,000 feet is not yet planned.

Also, the conditions at 100,000 feet are extremely similar to flying at low level in the atmosphere of Mars. It is not terrribly hard to design a plane that can fly in either one of those aerial conditions. In both cases, the density is about 1% of that at sea level, or about 1 kPa. However, Mars has only around 1/3 the gravity and requires a plane that can be launched from Earth on a Delta series or Ares series rocket, survive several months in space, then unfold either in the martian atmosphere, or take off from a ground unit.

To reach 100,000 feet on Earth, on the other hand, requires a very special craft - either a very powerful rocket like SpaceShipOne and the X-15 (or the quasi-ramjet-powered SR-71), or a long-duration, high-lift craft like the Helios, or one like a sailplane that can ride atmospheric waves.

No comments: